Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 hit Get Shorty was the fortuitous beneficiary of two related cinematic developments—the near-total absence of films based on Elmore Leonard’s books, and the phenomenal success and popularity of the Leonard-inspired Pulp Fiction (whose hipper-than-thou coattails Sonnenfeld’s film brazenly rode). F. Gary Gray’s celebrity-stuffed sequel Be Cool mistakenly thinks nothing’s changed during the past decade, delivering a tediously straightforward, unimaginative—and therefore entirely unnecessary—adaptation of Leonard’s kooky criminal comedy while at the same time referencing Tarantino’s classic (most directly via a dance floor reunion between John Travolta and Uma Thurman) in a misguided bid for nostalgia-tinged relevance. Cool? This bumbling exercise in redundant replication is as disagreeably lukewarm as a heavily trafficked municipal baby pool.
Bored by movie producing, reformed “shylock” Chili Palmer (Travolta) decides to take a spin at the music biz by trying, with the help of a sexy record label owner (Thurman), to steal an up-and-coming singer (Christina Milian) away from her boastful wigger manager (Vince Vaughn, personifying obnoxiousness) and his boss (Harvey Keitel). The smooth operator’s career change provides a new venue for the filmmakers to playfully mock, yet Be Cool’s feeble central conceit remains identical to its predecessor—Chili is a gangster, but he’s no more ruthless or corrupt than entertainment managers, producers, and executives (“This is the music business—we’re all wiseguys,” says Keitel). Chili begins the film by making jokes about the awfulness of sequels, and finishes by proving his hip-hop acumen with a reference to the Sugar Hill Gang. As before, though, his smugly nonchalant attitude of invincibility makes him wholly uninteresting. The same can be said of Gray’s formless direction, full of flat, slapdash scenes that lack the visual flash and finesse that made Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (also based on a Leonard novel) sizzle. Saddled with an excess of stars—Cedric the Entertainer, The Rock, Outkast’s André 3000, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, James Woods, and Danny DeVito, among others—and a runaway script opposed to concision, the film quickly succumbs to pace-crippling narrative distension.
As with most of Leonard’s writing, Be Cool’s lawbreaking characters are soft and cuddly caricatures who inhabit a brightly colored adult comic-book world where cruelty, misogyny, homophobia, and all-around crassness are accepted so long as they’re accompanied by some funny idiosyncrasies (André 3000’s gun-toting rapper, for example, likes to sip tea) and tasty sarcastic quips. More distressing, however, is the film’s gleeful employment of unwarranted racial, ethnic, and homosexual slurs. Most every prominent minority suffers at least one nasty epithet, with the most insensitive stereotypical swipes coming courtesy of The Rock’s Elliot Wilhelm, a gay bodyguard (deemed professionally incompetent because of his sexual orientation) who excitedly slaps himself in the ass and furnishes his apartment with Rhinestone and Moonstruck posters (because all queer men love Dolly and Cher!) while the film doggedly equates homosexuality with physical weakness. Astonishingly, there’s a sense that these slanders, bandied about no differently than any other curses, should be openly tolerated as part of acceptable modern-day vernacular. And thus when Cedric the Entertainer rails against the “n” word during a third-act monologue, the speech comes across not as a sincere anti-discrimination diatribe, but rather as just another of the film’s preemptive attempts to silence potential critics by self-referentially addressing its own failings.